The first Democratic primary is approaching. But where?

The first Democratic primary is approaching. But where?

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But talk with Democratic officials here in New Hampshire, including some of Mr. Biden’s most ardent supporters, and they’ll tell you that’s not happening.

“Of course” New Hampshire is going to go first, insists the state’s Democratic Party chair, Raymond Buckley, wiping sweat off his brow at an unseasonably warm picnic with local Democrats in Amherst last month. “Didn’t I say that a year ago?”

While the Granite State has not yet officially filed a waiver declaring its intention to thwart the DNC’s calendar, New Hampshire Democratic leaders flatly say they’re planning to do just that. Even if it means holding a primary election in which Mr. Biden isn’t on the ballot. Even if it means being stripped of half their delegates to the national convention next summer, as the DNC is threatening to do. 

On one level, the dispute may seem minor. But like hosting the Olympics, “first in the nation” primary status comes with real prestige, power – and money. Every four years, presidential campaign staffers and members of the media have descended on New Hampshire, filling hotel rooms and restaurants, while local television and radio stations are inundated with ads.

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And some say the confusion and frustration over the calendar changes could have real costs. In a reelection year that should be all about party unity, it could dampen enthusiasm and turnout in this and other key swing states – whose electoral votes could well determine the outcome in November. 

“New Hampshire will have the first primary, period. It doesn’t matter what the DNC does,” says Kathy Sullivan, a former New Hampshire party chair and DNC member. She accuses the national party of effectively “turning [its] back on a very hardcore group of Democrats” who want to show their support for the president.

“We have the DNC trying to tell us not to participate in an election,” she says. “That’s not democracy; that’s just plain stupid.”

Iowa and Georgia also in limbo

The standoff between New Hampshire and the national party has been going since last December, when the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee officially approved the new primary calendar, putting South Carolina on Feb. 3. New Hampshire and Nevada were supposed to follow on Feb. 6, with Georgia and Michigan at the end of the month. 

Iowa was taken out of the Democrats’ early lineup altogether, after a mishap-ridden 2020 caucus. But Iowa Democrats are considering implementing a mail-in caucus in mid-January, anyway. And Georgia, which was given an early slot by the DNC, is having trouble complying with the new calendar. The state’s Republican governor sets the primary date and has said he would only move the Democrats’ primary if the Republican National Committee agreed to move as well – which the RNC does not appear inclined to do. 

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In New Hampshire, officials say their hands are tied by a state law that requires New Hampshire to hold its primary one week before any other state primary – which the Republican-controlled legislature and governor have announced they will uphold. 

Officials at the DNC appear all but resigned to the fact that New Hampshire will probably go forward with a January primary date. If that happens, DNC rules state that any Democratic candidate who campaigns there will be ineligible to win the state’s delegates to the national convention. The Biden campaign, under this scenario, is not expected to put the president’s name on the ballot. 

“This is very much Biden’s decision. He is not going to put his name on the ballot,” says Elaine Kamarck, a member of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. 

Mr. Biden could, however, still win the state if voters choose to write in his name – an outcome that many New Hampshire politicos and party operatives are anticipating.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to be first, and Biden’s going to win the primary,” says Mr. Buckley. “Then we’re going to carry the state for Biden-Harris in November – and we’ll all move on.” 

A looming embarrassment 

But some here worry that the whole debacle could dampen turnout in a state that has transitioned from reliably red to purple. New Hampshire’s Democrats may see little reason to vote in an unsanctioned primary – and, critically, many independent voters may opt to participate in the Republican contest instead. Any independent who votes in the Republican primary will be registered as a Republican from that point on unless they change their registration back to independent. 

T.D. Floras, a sales manager from Nashua, has voted Democratic most of her life, but says she’s planning to vote in the Republican primary next year because she doesn’t want to “throw away” her vote in an unsanctioned Democratic election. While she says it’s “really unlikely” she would vote for a Republican in November, she adds that “anything can happen.” 

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“People here take the primary here very seriously,” says Jim Demers, who co-chaired former President Barack Obama’s New Hampshire campaigns and steered Hillary Clinton’s in 2016. “If there is no effort made to write in Biden’s name, then a lot of independents are going to vote in the Republican primary. I think it’s important to keep those Republicans on the Democratic side.” 

The DNC says it’s confident Mr. Biden will win the New Hampshire primary regardless of when it happens and whether he’s on the ballot or not. State polls have the incumbent president leading his current opponents, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson, by as much as 50 to 70 percentage points.

But some warn it would be an embarrassing turn of events should the president somehow lose the first primary contest of the season, even an unsanctioned one.

“The DNC has this false belief that the New Hampshire primary will be irrelevant,” says Ms. Sullivan. “The first headline is going to be who wins the New Hampshire Republican primary. The second headline is either going to be: Biden wins on a write-in, or RFK Jr. wins the New Hampshire Democratic primary. What’s the bad headline for Biden?”

Still, national party officials say the embarrassment will be entirely New Hampshire’s, if the state long known for taking presidential politics seriously winds up backing Mr. Kennedy or Ms. Williamson in a low-turnout election that doesn’t feature the sitting U.S. president on the ballot. 

“New Hampshire will either go second as we suggested, or become pretty much irrelevant to the process,” says Ms. Kamarck with the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. “The real question is, what happens in 2028?”

Staff writer Sophie Hills contributed to this report.


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